Jemima Lewis: The value of an erotic charge in the classroom

Like many girls I was a sucker for English masters - the more tweedy and shambolic the better
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In her new research paper, entitled Scandalous Stories and Dangerous Liaisons, Dr Sikes argues that around 1,500 such love affairs blossom every year in Britain's schools, and that it is wrong to dismiss them as exploitative or unequal. She is annoyed that female students are always assumed to be the "victims" of predatory teachers, when in fact they often make the first move.

She even argues that sexual chemistry in the classroom may be a useful teaching aid. "Expressions of sexuality provide a major currency in the everyday exchanges of school life ... and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the seductive nature and 'erotic charge' often characteristic of 'good' teaching, which provokes a positive and exciting response."

All this is heresy to children's campaigners, who have denounced Dr Sikes as a dangerous crackpot. A spokesman for Childline called her paper "misguided and bizarre at best", while the NSPCC responded with the thunderous platitude: "Children spend the majority of their day at school, and teachers have a unique relationship with their pupils which should never be abused."

What delicate hypocrisies we demand of people in high places. Dr Sikes is not advocating abuse. She is merely pointing out what anyone who went to school already knows: that teachers are just as likely to be lusted after as lusting. It is almost impossible to get through school without developing a crush on at least one teacher.

Like many girls, I was always a sucker for English masters - the more tweedy and shambolic the better. For a while, my entire class developed a violent passion for a bearded Welshman called Mr Evans, who specialised in the novels of Thomas Hardy. He was a gentle creature, verging on shy - yet he had the charismatic's gift of making each person in a room feel that he was speaking directly to them. When he talked about the doomed love of Jude the Obscure, a Mexican wave of longing would ripple around the room, as each girl pictured herself blissfully doomed in Mr Evans' arms.

At night, in a bed still heavily populated by teddies, I imagined how his corduroy thigh might feel, were I to slip a hand on to it; and how his beard might prickle if he were to lay his lips on mine. Inspired by his "erotic charge", I became - for the first and last time in my school career - quite a swot. Once, I even invited him over to my house for some extra tuition. He accepted - on condition that the rest of the class came too.

In retrospect, I am glad that Mr Evans never kissed me. I would have thought less of him if he had. There is something suspect about grown men who fall for teenage girls - not because it's perverted (which men don't fancy young flesh?) but because it's intellectually lazy. It makes you wonder: is he not clever enough to have a woman his own age?

Moreover, as soon as a teacher succumbs to the charms of one pupil, he or she loses the affection of the rest. A friend of mine who went to an all boys' school suffered for years from unrequited love for his gamine young French teacher. So did everyone else. Her classes were models of discipline and attentiveness, with every pupil hanging longingly on her past participles - until one day an older boy announced that he had slept with her. Suddenly, the fantasy that had sustained each boy's ardour ("It's me she really wants") was extinguished, and with it their unnatural interest in modern languages.

In this respect, Dr Sikes has got it wrong: sexual desire may have a "positive effect" on lessons, but actual affairs between teachers and pupils are of no benefit to the rest of the school - apart from providing some gossip to leaven the long hours before the final bell.

Still, at least the good doctor is trying to get to the truth. Her critics, by contrast, will not countenance any fact that gets in the way of their ideological position: namely that all children are potential victims, and all adults potential predators.

When the boy band Busted released "That's What I Go to School For" - a song about a sexual crush on a teacher - no one accused them of being "misguided and bizarre". On the contrary: it rang enough bells to become an instant and deserved hit.

Pop stars, it seems, are allowed to be honest about these matters - just as long as the academics and policy makers never admit the truth.